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Ridgwell Cullum.

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As she passed up to the fort her mind had leapt back to the early days
when she had reached full young womanhood. And a scene that lived in her
memory came back again to urge her, as it never failed to urge her at
such moments.

It was one of the many times that her mother had hovered at the brink of
the grave. She and her step-father had shared the watch at the sick-bed.
Up till that time the man had displayed no regard for herself but the
treatment he would bestow upon an unwelcome burden on his life. There
had been a bitter antagonism on his part, an antagonism that suggested
positive hatred. But while they sat watching the closed, sunken eyes and
waxen features of her mother, as she lay gasping in what seemed to be
the last throes before collapse, an amazing change seemed to take place
in him. His whole attitude towards herself appeared to alter. It became
impressive in its kindliness and solicitude. He seemed suddenly to have
become far more tenderly thoughtful for her welfare than for the wife
who lay dying before his eyes. And when he spoke - But his words and
tones did more than disturb her. It was at the sound of them that the
almost dead eyes of her mother opened wide and turned a dreadful stare
upon him. For minutes it seemed they stared while the ashen lips
remained silent, unmoving. It was painful, dreadful. It was the man,
who, at last, broke the horror of it all. He rose abruptly, silently
from his chair and passed out of the room.

Then had come the great change. The moment the man had passed beyond the
door her mother stirred. She seemed to become feverishly alive in a
manner suggesting the victory of sheer will over a half dead body. She
turned on her bed, and a warm light flooded her eyes.

"Don't _you_ go, child," she had gasped eagerly. "I'm not dead yet and I
don't intend to die. I'm going to live long enough to fool him. Say,
you've got to quit nursing me. I tell you I shan't die - yet. A squaw can
do all I need. You reckon to help me. I know. You're a good girl. You're
too good to be - If you reckon to help me there's just one way. Get out.
Get right out. Learn to help yourself. Get out into the open. It's only
the woods, and the trail, and the Northern world'll teach you the same
as they taught your father. You've got to get so you can face life - when
the time comes around - alone. Learn to handle a gun - and use it. Learn
to face men, and hold them in the place that belongs them, whether
they're Indians or white. I'll die later on. But I won't die till I'm
ready. And that'll only be when I see you fit to stand alone. Then I'll
be glad, and I'll die easy."

The natural protest had promptly risen to the girl's lips.

"But I'll have Father," she cried. "Please, please let me help you,
Mother dear. I want to make you happy, and comfortable, and better. I
don't want you to die, and - - "

But her plea was never completed. A hard, cold light suddenly leapt into
the sick woman's haggard eyes.

"Don't mention your father to me," she cried fiercely, "He's no father
of yours. Cut the thought of his help right out of your mind. Forget it,
and work - work as I say. Work and learn, so you don't need to fear man
or - devil."

It was more than three years ago since the scene occurred. Her mother
had said she would live. She had lived, and was still dragging on a now
completely bedridden life. She lived, and, to the girl, it sometimes
seemed that it was only the fierce purpose in her mind that kept her
alive.

From that time, despite all other inclination, Keeko had obeyed. She had
plunged herself into the battle of the Northland which only the hardiest
could hope to survive. Even the winter trail she had dared
and - conquered. Oh, yes. She had obeyed and she had realized her
mother's commands to the letter. She had reached that point now when
she feared neither man nor - devil.

But for all her ability the whole of Keeko's equipment was only a
splendid veneer. Under it all she remained the simple-hearted girl, the
loyally devoted daughter. Her mother was still her first concern, a
concern that haunted her in the far distant woods, and on the waters of
the river, in storm and sunshine alike, and amidst the snows of the
winter trail. Each time she returned to her home she feared to find her
mother gone, flown to that rest from which there was no returning. And,
as the seasons passed her fears only increased. Her mother fought with a
passion of bitter purpose, but she was struggling against an
irresistible foe.

It was this that troubled Keeko now. It was the thought of nearly six
months' absence, and that which she might return to, that robbed her
eyes of their smiling light. She must go, she knew. It was her mother's
will. But she was loth, bitterly loth.

She passed within the low doorway of the fort, and approached her
mother's room. The place was all very crude. Its atmosphere lacked all
sense of comfort. It was all makeshift, and the stern days of the old
buccaneers frowned out of every shadowed corner. Keeko had neither time
nor inclination to brighten the place to which her step-father's plans
had brought them. And her mother - ? Her mother was indifferent to all
but the purpose which seemed to keep her hovering upon the brink of the
grave.

When Keeko entered the sick room the attendant squaw gladly enough
departed to the sunlight outside. And, left alone, the girl prepared to
take her customary farewell. The eyes of the sick woman lit at the sight
which was her only remaining joy in life. But the tone of her voice
retained its privileged quality of complaint.

"You're pulling out?" she demanded, in a low, husky voice, in which
there was always a gasp. "I was hoping you'd be around earlier, seeing
you won't get back till fall."

The girl understood. She did not take up the challenge.

"I had to fix the outfit right, Mother," she said. "You can't even rely
on Little One Man. But I guess it's all fixed now. How are you feeling?
Better? You're looking - - "

"You don't need to ask fool questions. You don't need to worry how I
look. It's you we need to think for. How many boys are you taking?"

"Three. Little One Man, Snake Foot, and Med'cine Charlie. They're all I
need. Snake Foot and Charlie with the big canoe and outfit, and Little
One Man and me with the other. We're out after a big bunch of pelts."

The sick woman's eyes shone prompt approval, for all the fixity of their
regard.

"See and get them. You've put your cash away. You've hidden it close. I
mean the cash for your trade at Seal Bay. That way you'll be fixed all
right. Keep it close, child. This year you need a good haul. Yes, yes.
And trade it, and hide the cash. Always hide your money. How much have
you got?"

"Nearly two thousand dollars."

"Not enough. Not enough. You need more. See you get it this year."

The mother broke off in a spasm of coughing, and Keeko stood helpless
and fearing until the fit had passed.

The tragedy of it all was terrible to the girl who had to look on so
utterly helpless. The convulsed figure beneath the coloured blankets was
simply skin and bone. The alabaster of the sunken cheeks was untouched
by any hectic display. The ravages of the consumption were too far
advanced for that. The wreck was terrible, and the dreadful cough seemed
to be tearing the last remaining life out of the poor soul's body.

"Well, don't stand around, child," the sick woman gasped, after a
prolonged struggle for breath. "You're going to eat. I can smell the
cooking. Well, go and eat. It's good to be able to. You've got to get
another three thousand dollars. You can get them out of your furs - if
you've any luck. Maybe this year. Don't worry for me. I'll die when I
feel like it, but not before. God bless you, child - as you deserve. You
needn't come around again before you pull out. It's time wasted, and
you've none to spare. Good-bye. You can send Lu-cana in to me again when
you go."

The straining eyes closed as though to shut out sight of the going of
the child who was all that was left to the remnant of a mother heart.
And Keeko knew that the dismissal must be accepted. There could be no
tender farewell. Her mother forbade it. Yet the girl was longing to
nurse and caress the suffering creature in her arms. But she understood.
Her mother refused everything for herself in a burning fever of urgency.
There was time for nothing - nothing but that purpose which she had set
her heart on.

Keeko obeyed. She passed out of the room at once.

Her meal was awaiting her, a rough, plain meal prepared by the squaw of
Little One Man. She partook of it in the kitchen, the long, dark old
hallplace that had probably served as some sort of barracks for the
disreputable pirates of centuries ago. She ate with a healthy appetite,
and some half hour later quit the shadows of the gloomy fort for the
bright sunlight of a spring noon.

The hour of her departure was nearing, and Keeko glanced down at the
landing. Her canoes lay there at their moorings, but - -

Her orders had been disobeyed! The canoes were deserted. Little One Man
was nowhere to be seen. Neither were the other boys. A quick frown of
displeasure darkened her pretty face, and she moved down to the water's
edge almost at a run.

But her journey was interrupted. It was the sound of a familiar, angry
voice, harsh, furious. It came from behind her, somewhere behind the
fort. The words were indistinguishable in their violence, but, as she
listened, there came another sound with which she was all too familiar.
It was the sickening flog of a rawhide quirt on a human body. It was her
step-father flogging an Indian, with all the brutality of his
ungovernable temper.

Keeko's eyes flashed in the direction of the canoes. Inspiration leapt.
Where were _her_ boys? They had no concern with the work of the fort.
They were _hers_. Something of the teachings and instincts of the life
she had learned stirred her to action. Light as a deer she ran to the
landing, and snatched up a rifle lying in one of the boats. It was the
instinct of self-preservation. But it was also an expression of her
determination to enforce her rights - if need be.

There was no hesitation. Keeko had learned so much in the past three
years. She knew the man who was her step-father. She knew his brutality
to Indians, and she suspected more. She hated the thought in her mind
now. She even feared it. But she was determined.

She was late by the seconds it had taken her to reach the spot. It was a
spot she knew well enough. A single tree standing by itself just behind
the fort. She found a group of Indians gathered about it looking on in
apparent indifference. Above their heads, in their midst, she beheld
the rise and fall of a heavy quirt.

Into the midst of this gathering she thrust her way. And, in a moment,
her worst suspicions were realized. Her boy, Snake Foot, was bound to
the tree-trunk. Bared to the waist, cowering but silent, he was
shrinking under the cruel blows of the quirt. Nicol, his dark eyes
blazing with a merciless fury, was flinging every ounce of his strength
into each blow of the terrible weapon in his hand. Keeko's horrified
eyes missed nothing. She saw that Little One Man and Med'cine Charlie
were amongst the crowd. It was all she needed.

In a moment she had flung herself in front of her Indian's bleeding
body, and whether by design or chance the muzzle of her rifle was
pointing and covering her step-father.

Her eyes were on his inflamed face. They were confronting him without a
sign of fear or any other emotion.

"Don't let that quirt fall on me!" she cried. "I want Snake Foot right
now, and I'm going to have him. Little One Man," she went on, without
removing her eyes from the furious face of the man still flourishing his
quirt aloft, "just cut him adrift right away, and hustle down to the
landing. We're going to pull out - sharp."

But Nicol had recovered from his surprise, and his mad fury suddenly
leapt into full flood again.

"Stand aside, girl!" he roared violently. "This swine refused to obey my
orders and I'm going to teach him - and anyone else - who's master here.
Get out of my way," he bellowed with an ominous threat of the quirt.

Keeko stood her ground. Her two boys had closed in towards her. They
were on either side of her, and a wicked gleam lit the eyes of Little
One Man as he watched the man with his upraised weapon. Keeko knew her
step-father had been drinking. The signs were plain enough to her. They
were all too familiar. But there was no yielding in her, whatever the
consequences of her act.

"Cut him adrift," she cried sharply, to the men beside her. Then to
Nicol her tone was only a shade less commanding. "Let that quirt touch
me, and I won't answer for the consequences. Guess you've no right to
thrash my boy, and I'm right here to see you quit. Think it over," she
added, and, with her last word, there was a movement of her rifle which
added to its aggression.

Just for a moment it looked as though a clash was inevitable. Just for a
moment it seemed as if the man's half-drunken madness was about to drive
him to extremes. But the girl's cool nerve, or more probably, perhaps,
the presence of her rifle, seemed to have a sobering effect. There was
the snick of Little One Man's razor-like knife as he released his bound
comrade from the flogging post, then Nicol, with a filthy oath, flung
his quirt on the ground, and, turning, thrust his way through the crowd,
and strode back to the fort.

Five minutes later Keeko was down at the landing. She was standing
looking on while her Indians cast off the moorings of the canoes. She
was shaking from head to foot. But not a sign of her weakness was
permitted in the sharp, clear orders she flung at her crew.




CHAPTER V

A DUEL


"What's amiss with Keeko?"

The sick woman opened a pair of startled eyes. She half turned her face
towards the darkened doorway.

Nicol was standing there. He had entered the room at that moment, but
with a quiet unusual to him. She gazed at him without reply. Perhaps the
activity of her brain was dulling. Perhaps she was searching the face,
the sight of which she had learned in years to hate and fear.

It was a handsome face still, for all the man was approaching fifty. It
was fleshy, and its dark beard did not improve it. But the eyes were
keen and fine for all there was coldness and cruelty in their hard
depths. The abundant moustache was without a tinge of grey in it, but it
lacked trimness, and hung over a cruel mouth like a tattered curtain.
The woman knew the value of these good looks, however. They served to
mask a mind and heart that knew no scruple. So it was that her reply
finally came in a quick apprehensive question.

"What d'you mean?" she gasped, in her spasmodic way. "What's she done?"

Nicol laughed. It was not a pleasant laugh. He moved across to the bed
and sprawled himself upon its foot, while his eyes searched the
emaciated face as though some secret speculation was going on in his
mind while he talked of other things.

"She held me up with a gun," he said slowly. "That's all. She held me
up! Me! And she did it with a nerve I had to reckon was pretty fine.
There were twenty or more of the darn Shaunekuks around. Guess I was mad
at the time. But I had to laff after."

The unmoving eyes of the woman on the bed were reading him. No mood of
his could deceive her. She had learned her lesson bitterly in something
like seventeen years. The man was acting now. He was laughing over an
incident which filled him with a consuming rage.

"You came here to tell me about it." The voice was faint with bodily
weakness, but there was no weariness in the anxious watchfulness of her
eyes. "Guess you'd best tell it. It's not your way to waste time in this
room with anything pleasant to hand out. It's easier for me to listen,
and nothing you can say can do me much hurt."

The man laughed again. It was a laugh that was cut off abruptly.

"I don't need to look for sympathy where you are," he said. "Anyway I
don't guess I need any."

"No."

The antagonism of the monosyllable was unmistakable.

Nicol shrugged.

"That swine, Snake Foot," he said. "He refused to do as I told him. He
guessed Keeko needed him at the landing, and he hadn't time for me. So I
took him to the flogging post."

It was said coldly. Quite without emotion.

"And you flogged him with your - quirt?"

"Sure."

The man's teeth clipped together.

"Oh, yes," he went on, after a moment. "I'm not the sort to let a neche
get away with that sort of thing. You see, I reckon I'm master around
this layout."

"And Keeko?"

Again came the man's ominous laugh in reply.

"She was quick. I reckoned she was here with you. Making her fancy
farewell. But she was around before I'd hardly begun. Oh, yes. She acted
her show piece, and if you'd seen it I guess she'd have got your
applause good. It was against me. She jumped in front of that
red-skinned swine so my quirt nearly came down on her. But it didn't.
And I'm glad. Guess she's too soft, and pretty, and dandy to hurt - yet.
A feller doesn't feel that way with women later, when they show him the
hell they've always got waiting on any fool man. She's got grit. Sure
she has. It's good for a girl to have grit, and I'd say she's got
it - plenty. But she put up a gun at me. And I reckon she meant to use it
if need be. It's that that's the matter. That's been put into her darn
fool head. That's not Keeko."

The man's manner had changed abruptly. His heavy brows depressed, and,
to the listener, it was as though she could hear his teeth grit over
each word he spoke. But even so she could not restrain her passionate
joy at the defeat the man's words admitted.

"She beat you?" she said, a great light flooding her big eyes. "She beat
you," she repeated, "and made you quit. She took your measure for the
coward who could flog a wretched neche who couldn't defend himself. I'm
glad."

For a moment the sting of the woman's words looked like overwhelming the
man's restraint. But the black shadow of his brows suddenly lightened,
and again he shrugged his heavy shoulders with a transparent
indifference.

"Oh, yes," he admitted. "She beat me." Then he added slowly, and with
an appearance of deep reflection: "But then she's young. How old?
Nineteen?" He nodded. "Nineteen, and as pretty as a picture. Prettier by
a heap than her mother ever was." His lips parted with a noise that
expressed appreciation and appetite. "Say, did you ever see such a
figure? She kind of makes you think of a yearling deer, or the picture
of one of those swell girls Diana always has chasing around her. And she
don't know a thing but what this country's taught her - which I guess
isn't a lot. But she can learn. Oh, yes. She can learn." Then with
deliberate, cold emphasis: "And one of the things she'll learn is that
she can't hold me up with a gun without paying for it."

The mother's eyes widened with fear, with loathing.

"What do you mean?" she cried, with a force which must have alarmed
anyone who understood or cared for her bodily condition. "Pay? How can
you make her pay? Oh, you don't know Keeko. You don't know what you're
up against. Keeko would shoot you like a dog if you dared - - "

The man raised a protesting hand and smiled into the eyes which betrayed
so much.

"Easy, easy," he said. "You're jumping too far. It's taken you years,
and I guess you haven't learnt yet. Guess I'll have to do better. You're
one of those fool women who never learn. If you'd horse sense you
wouldn't have said what you handed me just now. You're glad Keeko took
my measure for a coward. You're pleased, mighty pleased she beat me. Oh,
yes, I know, you've done your best she should act that way. That's
because you're scared, and you don't love me like you used to. You
reckon she'd shoot me like a dog. Anyway you hope so."

Nicol shook his head, and prolonged the smile with which he regarded the
mother's emaciated features.

"Oh, no," he went on. "She won't shoot me like a dog. But I'll tell you
what will happen. I don't mind telling you now. She won't get back till
the fall. And when she comes back you won't see her. So you won't be
able to hand her the things I'm saying. You're more than half dead now.
You'll be all the way before she comes back, and I guess you'll be able
to lie around somewhere out of sight in the woods watching the game I
play. I'm going to show Keeko what a fool she was to listen to your
talk. She's just going to see the dandy fellow I really am. She's going
to be queen of this camp, set up on a throne I've made for her. And if I
know women she's going to fall for it. There's no need for scruple.
She's not my daughter. I'm not even her step-father. I've a hand full of
trumps waiting for her, and when you're dead, and she gets back, I'm
going to play 'em all. Then - after - when I'm tired of the game, she's
going to pay for that gun play till she hates to remember the fool
mother whose talk she ever listened to. We're here a thousand miles from
anywhere, which is the sort of thing only a crazy woman like you could
ever for - Hello! What in hell d'you want?"

Nicol sat up. In a moment his entire manner changed. He scowled
threateningly as he eyed the dusky figure in the doorway. It was the
squaw Lu-cana whose moccasined feet had given out no sound as she
approached.

"White feller man come by river," she said, in the soft, hushed voice of
her race, while her eyes refused to face the scowl of the white man.

"White man? What the hell! Who the devil is he?"

Nicol had risen to his feet, his manner brutally threatening. The squaw
feared him, as did all the Indians. But in the presence of the sick
white woman she found a measure of courage.

"Him wait. Him say, 'Boss Nicol, yes?'" she replied, and stood waiting
with her dark eyes fixed upon the woman she served.

But the sick woman gave no sign. Her poor troubled brain was staggered
by the hideous threat which she had been forced to listen to. She lay
there like a corpse prepared for burial, utterly unconcerned for that
which was passing.

Just for a moment the man hesitated. He glanced back at the bed as
though regretful at being dragged from his torture of the defenceless
woman lying there. Then with a shrug, he moved across the room, and,
thrusting the squaw aside, hurried out to meet his unexpected visitor.

* * * * *

It was an utterly different man who shook the visitor by the hand. Nicol
was smiling with a pleasant amiability. And no man could better express
cordiality than he.

"It's 'Tough' Alroy," he said, as though that individual were the only
person in the world he wanted to see. "Well, well," he went on heartily.
"My head's just bursting with pleasure and surprise. Say, I often
remember the days - and nights - in Seal Bay. Gee! This brings back times,
eh? Is it just a trip or? - - "

"Business."

The man grinned. He was more than well named. His black eyes were full
of good-humoured deviltry. He was a type, in his picturesque buckskin,
familiar enough among the trail men of the Northland. Tough, as his
nickname suggested, hard, unscrupulous, ready for anything that the gods
of fortune passed down to him, nothing concerned, nothing mattered so
that he gathered enough for a red time at his journey's end.

"Business?"

"Yep. Lorson Harris. It's big. Guess I've a brief along with me that's
to be set right into your hands, an' when you've eaten the stuff wrote
ther', why, you need to light a pipe with it, an' see ther's none left
over. I've been takin' a hand up to now. But ther's reasons why I've cut
out. It's for you now. Can we parley?"

The trader's cordiality had become absorbed in a deeply serious regard.
He was guessing hard. Lorson Harris was the one man in the world whom he
seriously feared. He knew he was bound to him by chains which galled
every time he strained against them. The great trader's tentacles were
spread out over the length and breadth of the Northland. There was no
escape from them. He had said a few moments before that here, at Fort
Duggan, they were a thousand miles from anywhere. But then he was
thinking of something quite different. So long as he lived in the
Northland he knew he was within immediate reach of Lorson Harris. What
was this message from Lorson Harris? What did it portend?

He abruptly turned and indicated the broad sill of the door of the main
fort building.

"Sit right here, boy," he said, forcing himself to a return to his
original cordiality. "Guess there's room for us both. We can talk till



Online LibraryRidgwell CullumThe Heart of Unaga → online text (page 17 of 30)